Yelena Eckemoff, with her brand-new release, “Lonely Man and His Fish,” pushes the bar even higher, in terms of artistic accomplishment. How is that even possible? With each successive album, over the last two decades, Yelena has been the very definition of tasteful and creative jazz explorations. She has rallied the absolute finest musicians anywhere on every single one of her welcome contributions, the current one surely no exception.
For starters, the title cut here leaps out of the gate with everyone’s drummer of the moment, Eric Harland, in marching duet with Yelena (her touch on piano is unparalleled), alongside the syncopated interactions of bassist extraordinaire, Ben Street, and brilliant-tone cornetist, Kirk Knuffke. Wait: is that Yelena switching to Fender Rhodes mid-stream? What a joy to see/hear her incorporating electric piano and celeste (on “Man and His Fish,” for example) into her already formidable presentation of acoustic piano technique across this entire album. Yelena never sits still, that’s for sure!
I particularly love that Yelena is no stranger to including off-the-beaten-track instrumentalists across her rich and varied career. Here, for example, is featured Masaru Koga on all manner of Japanese flutes (for example, on “First Evening at Home” and “Breakfast for Two”). Yelena’s catholic tastes show up in her compositions and arrangements, as well. Take the second cut here as just one instance: “Pet Store,” where funk meets humor meets A-level improvisation.
In fact, this album is testament to Yelena’s open-minded, ever-growing sensibility. Having immersed myself in Yelena’s music for the past decade-and-a-half, I can honestly observe that I don’t believe there has ever been an album of hers which felt in any way redundant, or even derivative of that which preceded it. Yelena seeks originality: both in her ever-evolving roster of co-contributors and in her prolific, always fresh cascade of jazz compositions. What a joy to encounter such reliable creativity in one individual’s expansive vision!
On a slightly more personal note: Yelena knows that I have played jazz drums for nearly 60 years now. At last, it seems, the “old man” is needing to slow down. Recent surgeries have made it impossible for me to continue playing my beloved “tubs.” In fact, it has been hard for me to even listen to the jazz I have only ever loved. Something about hearing jazz played – especially at such a high level as this presentation — makes me so desirous to play, and the thwarting of that latter wish has at times been challenging to bear. I know that, given time, I’ll be back to listening, if not performing; and certainly more jazz concerts locally will again return to my calendar. But I have a singular compliment, and heart-gratitude, to offer you, Yelena…
Yours is the first album of contemporary improvised music – by any other name, jazz at its very best – that I have been able to listen to in virtually this entire past year. (I know, it must sound like abomination!) Yet all I had to do was open this compact disc (two, in fact), turn up the volume, turn down the lights, and find my way back to this first, deep love once more. It’s this album, dear Yelena, this immense gift of yours, that turned things around just in time. I hope it may touch the ears, the hearts, the being, of others even a fraction of what it has for me. Thank you, thank you, thank you, maestro!
P.S. To the receptive listener, please enjoy Yelena’s accompanying love story, between a man, his fish-partner, and a certain trumpet’s dreamy reconnection. That tale, including Yelena’s art (how can one individual be so talented?), is surely the cherry on top of this very tasty, jazz sundae!